By Slade Sohmer (@Slade on Twitter)
There is more to Broadway than hip-hopped 18th-century American history. To wrap up the year, here are 10 of the best nights of theater in 2016. These aren’t necessarily the 10 best shows in NYC right now; rather, these are the best theater-going experiences that one person you may or may not know experienced. As we all know, theater is very much the Snapchat of entertainment: wholly ephemeral, entirely personal, and occasionally there are nudes. Now...on with the show!
The laugh-cry emoji come to life, this ode on a Judeo-homo broken home is, at once, comical and devastating. Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells bring an emotional heft to something initially superficial, building to a moment when you can barely hear them over the audience’s unified sniffles and sobs. Brandon Uranowitz steals about a dozen scenes, Anthony Rosenthal makes you question how some child actors can be that precocious and poised, and Stephanie J. Block’s mesmerizing “I’m Breaking Down” is a show-stopping performance that is alone worthy of your admission shekels.
Hands-down (face-down?) the sexiest, funniest and most polarizing new musical to come to Broadway in years. The magnificent Ben Walker performs half the show in his briefs, looking like the finished product of the world’s thirstiest sculptor. His lack of a nomination for Best Actor was the biggest snub of 2016 Tonys. Duncan Sheik’s music is a little more miss than hit (especially given Spring Awakening’s genius), but the book, humor, acting, set design, chiseled abs and “Paaaatricks” make this the exact type of show we need in more Broadway theaters.
The year’s best play is a total creeper, in the sense that the show will end, the curtain will fall and lights will light, you’ll exit the theater thinking it was “really quite good, yeah,” and by the time you hit the street you’ll be raving “wow!, that was excellent!, and the ACTING!, shit!,” and you’ll be increasingly floored by how Tony winners Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell convey the daily pressures and temptations and responsibilities of middle-class life with more subtlety than any recent documentary or film exploring similar familial subject matter.
Cynthia Erivo, Cynthia Erivo, Cynthia Erivo. Her performance will go down as a world-class stage triumph that made her a no-brainer in one of the most crowded Best Actress categories in history. That voice. Those pants. She made you believe it. Everything. She made you feel it. Everything. When she belts “And. I’m. HEEEERE” you don’t even know whether you’re on this planet anymore (from 2:45 in the video above). If Erivo is an A+++ up there, the show is made better by A+ turns from Heather Headley and Danielle Brooks. Please support my Kickstarter to film a musical road trip buddy comedy with these three (yes, we’ll write a role for Squeak). Shoutout to the Ivo van Hove-esque stripped-down vision, the theme of which you may call “chairs.”
That this was only five nights at City Center is a travesty of the highest order. Elizabeth Swados’ middle finger to the People Who Did Hair may have been the year’s most woke show in the wokest year of recent theater. The casting directors put out a call for “young people of all ethnicities, body types, gender identifications, and ability levels,” and the result was a brilliant collection of 25 teens and tweens of all sizes, shapes and talent. This deserves a full off-Broadway run, if only to give even more life to a banger like “Let Me Be a Kid.”
Deaf West’s production brings the original’s barely legal erotic angst, yearning and dread to a fevered new pitch. Many critics and theatergoers questioned the necessity of a quick revival, but this was one of the more inspiring, show-changing retellings of existing work. Michael Arden could have (should have?) legitimately won the Tony for Best Direction had Hamilton not been, ya know, Hamilton. The ensemble straddles this line between innocence and seduction that makes the climax in performances like “Touch Me” especially loin-tingling (see video above).
Charmed, we’re sure. Here’s all you need to know about a night at the Lyceum with Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland: If you don’t laugh hysterically for at least 95% of the show, you don’t deserve comedy. You just don’t. Prepare to spend 100 minutes guffawing through competing Sliding Doorsy visions of what your life would be like if you married John Mulaney or Nick Kroll.
How Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry learned the nuances, nooks and crannies of TL5Y for a one-night concert benefit while in the grasp of other musicals remains one of life’s great mysteries. Being enveloped in Jason Robert Brown’s piano while Erivo and Henry dazzle you with perfect notes and sad songs and chipper vibes and Yiddish accents was one of those This Is Why You See Theater moments. Erivo is quite obviously a star of stars and performed impeccably, but Henry more than held his own before jetting off to Chicago the next morning to begin the role of Burr in Hamilton. Truly a special evening.
Well this thing came out of fucking nowhere, eh? New York Theatre Workshop gets massive press for big-time shows like Lazarus and Othello, but this show was the hit of all hits from the past few seasons. Rachel Chavkin, who steered Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 from a Meatpacking tent to Broadway, has a similar hidden gem with Anais Mitchell’s O-Brother-y folk opera retelling the myth of cuties Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s in the round, it’s in the audience, Amber Gray’s Persephone is a revelation, Patrick Page hits the most chillingly low note you ever imagined and Chris Sullivan is the narrator of your wildest dreams.
#1: Dear Evan Hansen
“You will be found,” they sing, and they’re right -- you will be found swimming in a puddle of your tears on the floor of the theater when the lights come up. Ben Platt’s brilliant performance as the title character has already shut down the Best Actor category at the 2017 Tonys: One second he’s showing off a mastery of comedic timing, the next he’s a literal mess of real tears and snot and spit. Rachel Bay Jones, between this role and Catherine in Pippin, is carving out a legacy as the Queen of Act II. And Will Roland as Evan’s best family friend is the breakout star of the season. Have seen this one three times in 2016 and it’s not nearly enough. Go, now.
All photos by Joan Marcus, unless otherwise stated.
Yes, this show is still the best thing on Broadway, and the second generation is damn good at what they do. But having seen it [cough] times in 2015, this performance wasn’t enough to bump anything from the Top 10 list.
Worth seeing this 1920s throwback for the cast alone: The namesakes of Sterling Cooper, SVU's Captain Cragan, Nathan Lane, John Goodman, Holland Taylor, Jefferson Mays, Sherie Rene Scott, Creepy Dad from Happiness, and best of all, Shooter McGavin.
Yeah, it’s hard to top the pre-Hamilton Lin/Leslie/Olivo TTB at City Center, but the terrific Godspell revival reunion of Nick Blaemire and George Salazar certainly does justice to Jonathan Larson and his aging anxiety.
Photo: Ben Jay
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